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NEWS ANALYSIS Barak looks for common ground with potential coalition partners

JERUSALEM, June 1 (JTA) — Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak continued efforts this week to form a broad-based coalition from divergent political parties, but did not rule out the possibility of creating a narrow government if necessary. While his negotiating team worked at courting the Likud Party and, to a lesser degree, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, Barak signaled that he was beholden to no one. “I tell everyone: The door is open. I want a broad government, perhaps with the Likud, perhaps with the Likud and Shas,” Barak said, but added. “I do not have a problem establishing a narrow government in a few days, and perhaps in the end this is what will happen.” In order for Barak to form a broad coalition, however, he needs to build bridges between his own policies and those of other parties. Among the thorny issues: * Negotiations with the Palestinians: Barak may propose that Israel and the Palestinian Authority move directly to final-status negotiations and forego implementation of the Wye accord, which includes additional phased withdrawals from the West Bank in exchange for security measures by the Palestinians. According to sources within Barak’s Labor Party, such a proposal may make it easier for Likud and the National Religious Party to join his government. Outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, who suspended implementation of the accords in December, has also suggested moving right to final-status talks, which would address issues of settlements, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. * Syria and Lebanon: Netanyahu confirmed this week that his government had conducted secret talks with Syria for a year during his term, but they concluded without an agreement. On Tuesday, Netanyahu met with Barak to update him on political and security issues. If Likud were to join a coalition government, Barak could have broad support for continuing negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights and Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. * Settlements: Seeking a middle ground on the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, media reports this week said the coalition negotiating team has drawn a blueprint for halting construction of new settlements but allowing for the natural growth of existing ones.
It was this issue of settlement policy that provoked objections from Palestinians, who declared Thursday a “day of anger” over Jewish settlement activity. In the days following the Israeli elections, the warm congratulations showered on Barak by the Palestinians quickly turned to appeals to reverse settlement expansions endorsed by the outgoing government and warnings not to continue in a similar vein. Barak has appeared to have made headway on the settlement issue with the left-wing Meretz Party and the National Religious Party. However, sharp disagreement could emerge once the sides get to the issue of whether to continue the Likud government’s policy of settlement expansion. “From our standpoint, a government we are part of will not develop the settlements. They are an obstacle to peace and come at the cost of developing [low-income] neighborhoods and finding new jobs for the unemployed,” Meretz Knesset member Ran Cohen told reporters this week before heading into another negotiating session with Barak’s team. Meanwhile, representatives from Likud appeared interested in further talks, but took pains not to appear too eager. Outgoing Communications Minister Limor Livnat said her party can’t expect the new government to have the same policy as that of the outgoing government, “but we were impressed with their desire to prevent the situation” which occurred when Labor gained power in 1992 and Jewish settlements in the West Bank were “dried out.” “But it is clear that the gaps are not simple, and it is possible we will not find a way to bridge them,” Livnat said Monday after talks with Barak’s coalition negotiating team. On Wednesday, Barak’s staff issued a statement saying that he considers the immediate resumption of the peace process of utmost importance and that he would like to see Likud become part of the broad government he’s trying to build. Barak’s statement appeared to carry two messages — one to Likud and the other to the Palestinians, who fear his efforts to bring the party into his coalition could mean a continuation of the Netanyahu government’s settlement expansion policy. Barak and acting Likud Chairman Ariel Sharon met Wednesday in talks that Sharon described as “interesting.” Sharon would not say whether Likud would now enter formal coalition negotiations with Barak. Sharon also refused to comment on speculation about contact between Likud and Shas regarding the possible formation of an opposition bloc. Such a move could also undermine efforts by Barak’s negotiating team to try to play the two parties off one another in coalition negotiations. Meanwhile, in an apparent shift of attitude, Barak issued a statement Monday saying that he is interested in seeing Shas within his government. Previously, Barak had made clear he was not interested in negotiating with Shas, the third largest parliamentary faction with 17 seats, as long as Aryeh Deri, its corruption-tainted leader, continued to pull political strings. Commentators suggested the overture might have been intended as a signal to Likud not to try to use Barak’s distancing from Shas to raise the negotiating stakes. They also suggested it could reflect a realization by the Labor leader of having gone too far in freezing out the fervently Orthodox party. One development that could have precipitated the statement was the unusual meeting this week at the presidential residence between President Ezer Weizman and Shas’ spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Political observers said the gesture by Yosef, who is usually on the receiving end of visits, could indicate a willingness by Shas to meet Barak’s terms.

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